Going up: The cast of HIGH SCHOOL REUNION: THE MUSICAL — well, most of ‘em, anyway — includes (left to right) Glenn Jones, Lynn Kroll, Billy Van Zandt, Jane Milmore, Ed Carlo, and Susan Travers, with Barbara Bonilla grounded at center. The show by Van Zandt, Milmore and Nick DeGregorio makes its world premiere this weekend at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. (Photography by Danny Sanchez; composite by Kevin Cosme)
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit May 15, 2009)
For a couple of Monmouth County people who’ve gone forth and made it in the major leagues of show business, Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore don’t seem too interested in rubbing the noses of their former high school classmates in their success. In fact, Van Zandt maintains that the only two high school reunions he ever attended “were both miserable experiences.”
This being the season for such things, however, the award-winning tagteam of actors, writers and producers has made the trip back to New Jersey to participate in a huge reunion at a local school with which they share a deeply felt connection — and this time they’ll be in the company of some of their dearest friends.
Making its world premiere this weekend at Brookdale Community College, High School Reunion: The Musical is the latest (and maybe most ambitious) in a long and lucrative line of stage projects created by the Van Zandt-Milmore fun factory — a show that continues the annual “homecoming” tradition established more than 20 years ago by the prolific pair. It’s a tradition that’s taken root at BCC’s Performing Arts Center, with some of the most recent debuts including Silent Laughter, A Night at the Nutcracker, You’ve Got Hate Mail and last year’s Hitchcock parody Wrong Window.
With a cast that numbers nearly 20 performers, and an original score of some two dozen songs, the musical comedy set at the 30-year reunion of a typically cliquish (and completely neurotic) Class of 1979 brings together all of the archetypes (and arty types) that made life so needlessly complicated back in the day — the jocks, the nerds, the burnouts, the overachievers, the so-called ’studs’ and ’sluts’ and more; only balding, Botox’d, Beemer-driving and beaten down by Boomer expectations.
And no, despite the similarity in titles, it’s not an extrapolation of where Zac Efronand crew will be when the franchise goes dry.
1979, as it turns out, was also the year that the two writing partners began their professional collaboration, with the perennially popular stage farce Love, Sex and the IRS. The two have gone on to create more than 20 other plays, an original screenplay (A Wake in Providence) and a career in Hollywood as writers and/or producers on such sitcoms as Newhart, Martin and Anything for Love. They even garnered an Emmy nomination for the CBS special I Love Lucy: The Very First Show — and it’s even been said of the team’s dizzying output that “you know you work in community theater if you’ve ever appeared in a show written by Van Zandt and Milmore.”
The show abbreviated as HSRTM also stands as a reunion for numerous long-standing members of the Unofficial Van Zandt-Milmore Stock Company, with such veterans of BillyJane productions as Jeff Babey, Michael Chartier, Tom Frascatore,Glenn Jones, Michael Kroll, Art Neill and Susan Travers joining such new partners in mirth as composer-conductor Nick DeGregorio and co-director Gary Shaffer, who just wrapped up a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie in Red Bank, and who might be familiar to habitual oRBiters in his role as frontguy for the Irish-American pubrockers The Snakes.
Red Bank oRBit “did lunch” with Van Zandt (Middletown High School, class of 1975) and Milmore (Keansburg High School, class of 1973) the other day at McLoone’s in Sea Bright, speaking on topics that ranged from the death of print media to the state of the sitcom, to Family Guy and family dynamics and a couple of bawdy stories about the late great Bea Arthur.
Bea Arthur? Why, yes — as it turns out the two of them have an eerily coincidental connection to the recently deceased TV powerhouse — Billy through his marriage to Maude co-star Adrienne Barbeau, and Jane through her marriage to Golden Girlswriter-producer Richard Vaczy. Read on.
RED BANK ORBIT: So I’m understanding that the characters in the show are all in their late forties; all members of the Class of ‘79, and everybody in the cast seems to be age-appropriate to the part, give or take a couple of years. If I know you guys, you always push the envelope with the physical comedy, and I know you’ve got dance numbers going on here — so how’s that working out, with all these fifty year old bodies onstage?
JANE MILMORE: Well, I play a former cheerleader in the show, and when I leave here I’m going over to Barnstormers Gymnastics in Rumson for some cheerleader training — I have to be able to do a cartwheel onstage, and those cartwheel muscles haven’t been used in a while.
BILLY VAN ZANDT: Everybody in the show is flexing muscles that haven’t been used in a while. The comedy muscles are working fine; it’s the tap-dancing muscles that need a little work.
JM: Another problem for us is limited rehearsal space — they no longer have a dance rehearsal room on the Brookdale campus; they needed to convert it to more classroom space.
BVZ: And we can’t control the thermostat in the building! It can get really hot or really cold depending on the weather going back and forth — it’s computerized; you have to call somebody in DC to have them adjust the heat and AC up at Brookdale.
It looks like you all got a real workout doing the publicity photo for the show!
JM: Danny Sanchez photographed all of the actors individually. The women had a harder time of it, jumping in heels — we were afraid of getting hurt when we hit the floor.
BVZ: Glenn Jones made the biggest jump — a man who’s done so many pratfalls on stage that he probably doesn’t have an ounce of cartilage left in his body.
Billy, you and I attended the same school for about a year there — back in the glory days of split sessions. Anyway, everyone who knew you, even going back to junior high, knew you were a genuinely focused guy who was going to succeed in show business someway somehow. Were you really that involved in the day-to-day politics of high school back then, and did you ever actually attend any of your class reunions?
BVZ: I graduated from Middletown two years before they split into two schools — there were about a thousand kids in my class, but I made a point of knowing as many of them as I could.
JM: There were under a hundred kids in my class, so it was a different thing altogether.
BVZ: I went to two of my high school reunions, and they were both miserable experiences. At one of them, this drunk girl attached herself to me all night. I went to another reunion after that and wound up having a great time with this group of about eight people — and then as the night went on we all came to the realization that none of us had gone to school together.
Is it safe to assume that all the basic food groups are represented here; all of the classic types that seem to occur in any school, no matter how big or small it is?
BVZ: When you go to a high school reunion, you suddenly revert to who you were back then. So we have all the types represented; all the “food groups” as you say — The Class Clown, The Cheerleader, The Jock, The Musician…
JM: The Easy Girl, The Weird Ones, The Kid Who Smelled. At the beginning of the show, everybody is holding their old class photo — their actual school yearbook photo, or as close to that time as possible. I had brown hair in 1973, so I used a photo from around the time I went blonde.
Reunions have to be fertile ground for comedy at some level, and you must have picked up on some things at these reunions that made it into the script.
BVZ: There are some real life inspirations. At one of the reunions I went to, there was a woman who had to show up wearing a big fur coat — and it was July. We used that one. And one of the characters is even named after an actual person, Mike Terzano, who couldn’t appear in the show, but the character is him.
JM: Now, none of the guys who are playing football players in the show actually played football in high school. So I’m the unofficial football consultant, since I love football — and I had to tell them not to do Bob Fosse ‘jazz hands’ during the football practice number!
By and large, I’m guessing that a lot of the parts in the show were worked out with all those specific actors in mind.
BVZ: It’s a showcase for everyone in it, and we’re the ringmasters. Fifteen of sixteen people in the cast are playing roles that were written expressly for them. Only a couple of them auditioned — Barbara Bonilla, who we’re working with for the first time, is playing what we thought of as the Sherle Tallent character. Sherle has the ability to do a character that’s obnoxious while still being likeable, and Barbara has that quality also.
How about some of the new people that you’re working with here? Are they fitting in comfortably with all of the seasoned veterans?
BVZ: Working with Nick has been really enjoyable. There are 26 numbers in the show, and I think you’ll be shocked that some of them are actually very pretty songs. Our choreographer has been great, and working with Gary has been a lot of fun.
Did you get a chance to check out Gary Shaffer’s production of MILLIE? Or did you get a chance to see the Basie at all since they renovated?
BVZ: I did, and it’s great, except for one thing — that paper sign on the stairway pointing to the men’s room upstairs! It’s like, hey, could you spend maybe another twenty dollars on the place?
Alright, you guys should know that we wouldn’t be getting out of here without my asking you for your take on the passing of Bea Arthur. Billy, I remember you telling me once about a play that you were attending, where she was in the audience, and suddenly she got up and started going on about how it was the worst piece of shit she’d ever seen…
BVZ: She was yelling, ‘I’D LEAVE, BUT EVERYBODY KNOWS I’M HERE!’ I first met Bea at the Museum of Broadcasting, during a tribute to Maude. When I was introduced to her she looked me over and said, “Jesus Christ, is he even old enough to vote?’ But you know, when she passed away it was kind of like having a death in the family for us.
JM: I have a Bea Arthur story for you. We were at a party and she had to leave; she went out to her car, which was a little convertible sports car, and she brought her drink with her and starts driving away with this huge glass of gin in plain sight. I had to point it out to her, that she was going to be stopped if anybody saw what she was doing, and she told me she’d ‘take care of it.’ Later on I see her again, and this time she’s in a much bigger car — still with the giant glass of gin, but this time it’s safely hidden away from view.
So what happens after the Brookdale show closes? Any other projects in the works?
JM: We’re working on a three-camera pilot for Disney. They’re the only ones doing sitcoms right now!
BVZ: There’s sort of a Catch-22 involved with doing a sitcom these days. The audience for sitcoms has dissipated to some extent, so since there are so few of them in production, they all get micro-managed much more closely by the executives. And it’s driving the audience even further away.
JM: When there are only two or three sitcoms on the air, they’re all over you in ways that they wouldn’t be with an hour-long drama. With dramas, it’s more expensive to reshoot dailies, so they tend to leave those alone.
BVZ: When you work with Disney, the script has got to be approved in Italy! They test everything, every step of the way, for every market.
Any plans for another stage show after this one, or is this project gonna require a little break from the stage?
BVZ: We’re working with Desmond Child on a two-character musical — Lucy and Viv. It’s based on Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance; you know they worked together after I Love Lucy, into the 60s, and it’s about their relationship that lasted right up until Viv’s death. I even got as a gift this beautiful leather box, and inside it was Viv’s unpublished autobiography — the original copy, with her handwritten notations, straight from the executor of her estate.
So I guess that answers my question of whether High School Reunion represents sort of a last go-round for the old gang; maybe “elegiac” is too somber a word, but sort of a summing up of what you’ve been doing each year in Monmouth County…
BVZ: No, no; we’re having too much fun doing this. Maybe next time we’ll do a little four-character show, with a couple of stools and a curtain, but no way is this going to be our last!